Between the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE, the idea of theism was established in Hindu society. Theism recognizes that there is a supreme distinct god (Bhagavan) or goddess (Bhagavati), who generates the cosmos, maintains it, and finally destroys it, and who has the power to save beings through his grace.62
Around 200 BCE, Vishnu or Bhagvata worship became more prominent in India. The ancient god Narayana merged with the historical tribal gods Vishnu and Krishna, forming the most formidable Vishnu sect (Panth). The followers of this sect believed in non-violence and offered prayers to the idol (murti) of Lord Vishnu in different forms. They also offered various types of vegetarian food items to God; these were later distributed among the devotees.63 Srimad Bhagavatam heralds this era of devotion.
Srimad Bhagavatam is the grand tapestry of Puranic tales that are woven around the Lord. Srimad Bhagavatam is one of the authoritative Hindu criptures, and is regarded by some as the fifth Veda. The date of composition is probably between the eighth and the tenth century CE, but may be as early as the 6th century CE.
The story goes that after composing the great Mahabharata, Rishi Ved Vyasa was not yet fully satisfied. Sage Narada then told him to write a scripture on devotion, as the vast majority of people might not be able to attain salvation through the long and arduous process of jnana or karma (knowledge or action). This is especially true during Kali Yuga—the age of darkness—when vices are dominant in society. It is believed that in the Kali Yuga, utterance of God’s name with sincerity and devotion is sufficient to attain the moksha, or salvation. The Srimad Bhagavatam was thus composed, collecting many tales from the ancient Puranas.
The Srimad Bhagavatam contains the Puranic tales of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the most prominent being Lord Krishna. God-incarnation is the main theme of this scripture; the incarnation in human form is born to human parents and lives and dies like any human being, but during the course of his or her life he or she performs actions that can be possible by God alone.
The fabric of the Srimad Bhagavatam, however, has been woven in such a way that all the other gods and sages have been included in one-way or another. The mythological connection of one god to another was established, thus creating a sense of harmonious relationship among the various factions, which threatened divisive tendencies. Behind the façade of these legends and stories of the Lord are, of course, the spiritual and moral teachings for the mankind.
The Krishna Bhav, which also has come to be known as the Prem Bhav, is essentially a perspective and disposition of love and goodwill. Literally, Krishna means “one who attracts.” Even when weapons are used in war out of necessity, there may be no feelings of hatred or animosity. Man is prompted to perform Bhagavad Karma, the divine deeds, which have the sanction of the Lord. These deeds would be of purity and virtue; these deeds would be away from sin and wickedness. A Hindu is therefore asked to keep God in his mind all the time, not only on selected occasions.
According to an ancient legend, a virtuous Puranic king, Parikshit, was doomed to die from snakebite in seven days. He was then led to listen to the Bhagavatam Katha by sage Suka, son of Veda Vyasa, which described the whole story of all ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu—this would bring him immortality, not just of the physical body but rather the salvation of his soul—moksha. Thus, a philosophical idea was proclaimed that a man on earth has but a limited span of life, and in this period he may strive to attain the salvation. An individual is inspired to sit in meditation and surrender oneself to the Divine.
One of the most important sections of this scripture deals with the divine love play of Lord Krishna with the maids in Gokul. The maids, or gopis, of this town are completely enthralled by the Lord. When they hear his flute, they are mesmerized; they leave everything and rush to him. The rich display of the Lord’s rhythmic dance-sports, or raas leela, has endured in Hindu social life. Rich as well as poor, young and old, men and women, all dance to the lilting musical notes and celebrate the Lord’s joy. Once again the Hindu sages created an extravaganza of artistic pageantry with fabulous colors and designs. The sages used symbolic language in their narrations—the maids are the men and women of this earth. When they are able to listen to the flute of the Lord, and when they tune themselves to receive his call, they then are ready to abandon everything else and follow him with all their heart. These gopis have their household responsibilities, too, but they do not care. There is nothing higher than the Lord. The Divine represents the ultimate in truth and virtue. The message to mankind is symbolic, yet quite loud and clear. Raas leela, the Lord’s dance-sport, is not the display of sensual passion, as some might think. It is, rather, the sublimation of the physical desire to divine worship. Hindu sages discovered many spiritual techniques or sadhanas, to quench and exhaust sensual tendencies (vasnas).
There is also a symbolic explanation of these various legends of Srimad Bhagavatam; the good and the bad co-exist in our own mind. There is a constant war going on between these two forces. We are prompted to be governed by the divine forces and with the help of God, we are assured to succeed.
The Bhagavatam contains hundreds of tales; I have chosen two favorites. The first is as follows:
Lord Krishna had a childhood friend called Sudhama, with whom he had studied in the same ashram. Later, Lord Krishna became the king of Dwarka, but Sudhama remained a poor Brahmin. When Sudhama’s financial condition became unbearable, his wife, Sushila, persuaded him to meet with Krishna to ask for help, if possible. Sushila gave Sudhama a small packet of boiled rice to present before the Lord as a gift. After he arrived at the palace, the Lord treated him with great love, respect, and attention. Lord Krishna then humorously asked if any gift had been brought for him. On seeing the precious objects around in the grand palace, Sudhama was rather hesitant to open his modest packet. Krishna, true to his style, pulled out the packet and ate the rice with great relish.
There is also a spiritual version of this incident, in which the Lord ate a first and second handful of the cooked rice, but as he was about to gulp the third handful, his queen wife, Rukmini, held his hand, and said, “You have already granted him the two worlds! If you grant him the third one, what will happen to us?” The story ends on a happy note. Upon his return home, Sudhama is pleasantly surprised that an imposing palace has replaced his poor hut. Whenever people encounter any problems of friendship, they remember the story of Sudhama. The Lord left them a yardstick; whenever they might be mean, arrogant, or unhelpful; they would remember the story and feel self-conscious about their own behavior.
The other favorite story from the Bhagavatam tells of the star hero of the Mahabharata, Sri Bhishma Pitamaha. He was a man of utmost truth and integrity. He was courageous, skilled beyond contest, and saturated with a sense of sacrifice and duty. In the war of righteousness, however, he fought on the wrong side—Bhishma Pitamaha fought for the wicked Duryodhana, to fulfill a previous vow. He fought bravely in the war until he was mortally wounded. As he was lying on the bed of arrows, especially prepared at his own instructions in order to do penance for the mistake of joining with the unrighteous side, he received an unusual farewell. There never would be another war hero who was visited by all the leaders from both sides while lying on his deathbed.
Hindu culture has exhibited an unmatched scenario of grace and dignity in this most dramatic scene from the Mahabharata. Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas, came, along with Arjuna, Draupadi, and the other brothers. They all touched Bhishma’s feet, and with tears in their eyes they bid farewell, with utmost respect, to this grand old man. The Lord also came, as he promised that when a person completes all of his missions with truth and integrity, he would grant the divine vision, darshan, at the time of death. Bhishma’s only mistake—his taking the wrong vow—was mitigated by his penance. Then at this rare moment in life, Bhishma Pitamaha was asked to teach the code of conduct for all humanity to remember in posterity. True to his honor, he spoke of all the duties for which a person is called in life. When he mentioned women and talked about upholding their respect and honor, Draupadi burst into uncontrollable laughter. When questioned, she retorted, “Why were you silent when my honor was being looted in the court of Duryodhana?” The anguished Bhishma replied, “I did not resist, because I had eaten the food of the wicked Duryodhana.” Thus was laid the guiding code for all—that a man may not eat at just any place, at the place of the corrupt and the wicked, or with those who earn their livelihood in the wrong manner.
Srimad Bhagvatam again heralds significant changes in Hindu theology. In response to the emerging new religions of Jainism and Buddhism, Srimad Bhagvatam presents a different facet- promoting generally a non-violent conduct by the people (although God may save the innocent by killing and destroying the wicked). God as an incarnation in the human form of Lord Krishna is presented in all His glory and magnificence, thus repudiating the non-theist contention of these two religions. God’s infinite power and grace are highlighted, and so are the worship of God and the mutis (images) as icons of the Lord. The mystic, formless, transcendental impression of the Divine in the Upanishad Era has been replaced by the robust, direct, easy-to-recognize human face and human incarnation!
Srimad Bhagvatam is also named as the fifth Veda of the common man; as such the worship practices are rather simple and straight-forward. A new concept, that by just uttering the name of God, one may attain the moksha-salvation, has been forcefully introduced. This perception is ofcourse symbolic in nature, the idea being to pull the people toward God in whatever way possible. Gradually and with the grace of the Divine, one may become more and more pious and spiritual.
Although Lord Krishna has been presented in very simple and earthly manner, the real message of the Lord is much deeper and more symbolic. Literally, Krishna translates as “one who attracts”, thus the Lord has been acclaimed as the personification of Krishna Bhav-of love and goodwill.
Srimad Bhagvatam reminds all that a person has but a limited time in mortal life to fulfill the spiritual mission. One may never forget to follow and remember God.